A Pebble Beach Pro-Am for the PGA Tour’s new era has emerged. Au revoir, Bill Murray

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — There was a time you could show up here and see Clint Eastwood holding Jack Lemmon by his belt as the latter attempted to hit a ball off the edge of a cliff on the 16th hole, with Peter Jacobsen holding Eastwood and Greg Norman holding Jacobsen in a human chain to keep the movie star from being lost out to sea. You could turn on SportsCenter and see more highlights of Bill Murray’s shenanigans or Tony Romo’s shots than of the actual PGA Tour players.
The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, known as the Clambake going back 80 years, is at the core of the tour’s history. It was this fun, different event on the beautiful coast of California that served as a little celebrity party with Hollywood stars and famous athletes putting on a show in front of large galleries. And more than you may realize, the story of the PGA Tour’s formation and development can’t be told without Bing Crosby and Pebble Beach.
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But this week, Pebble Beach will be about the golf. At least more than ever before.
There are fewer celebrities. The pro-am will only last two days. And this tournament that hadn’t attracted elite fields for the last two decades suddenly has 48 of the top 50 players in last year’s FedEx Cup standings as the PGA Tour made it a “Signature Event” in 2024 with a $20 million purse. Suddenly the best of the best are back at one of golf’s most iconic courses.
This change is a big deal for the Clambake. It’s a big deal for the local community. But it also represents a small example of the entire shift happening in professional golf. It’s about the golf. It’s about TV. It’s about making an entertainment product that caters to the world and less about the people showing up in Northern California. This is what many golf fans have been pleading for. It’s also a shift that’s not easy.
“It’s incredibly challenging considering the history,” tournament director Steve John said, “… but it’s also exciting to evolve and bring the best pros here. This is such an exciting week.”
The field at this week’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am is one of the strongest PGA Tour fields in recent memory, including 2023 Open Champion Brian Harman. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)
Bing Crosby was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars starting in the late 1930s and one of its most avid golfers. He boasted a 2 handicap and once bought a house at Los Angeles Country Club. He had the idea to start a tournament. See, this was long before the formation of any real governing body in golf or any scheduled tour. There were just tournaments spread out across the country, and golfers made the trek to wherever they wanted to play. There were no TV deals or large sponsorships to worry about. So in 1937, Crosby put up $10,000 of his own money for a fun team tournament combining professionals and amateurs at Rancho Santa Fe Country Club outside San Diego. After it was over, they’d have a clambake.
It quickly became one of the most popular events for golfers in the country, and in 1947 it moved up to the Monterey Peninsula, overlooking the gorgeous cliffs and coastlines. And the biggest stars always went. In the early days, it might be Lemmon, Eastwood, Dean Martin and Paul Newman. Later on it became Murray, Chris Berman and Kevin Costner, and NFL stars quickly became a steady presence.
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Then came TV coverage of golf, and the Clambake was the perfect product. It could serve as some sort of golf-variety show hybrid. “Come see the stars hacking at golf balls and seeming just like us.” Viewers could see the original film Tarzan — Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller — hit a ball lodged in a tree and then hang from the branch to beat his chest and do the famous Tarzan yell. They could see Lemmon, who never made the cut, make a fool of himself — ABC’s Jim McKay once said on air, “And now here’s Jack Lemmon, about to hit that all-important eighth shot.” And of course, there’s the human chain incident of 1987. Then Bill Murray came along, and the golf-obsessed comedian made this his annual performance, interacting with the crowd and chugging beers.
But the impact was even more granular than just exposure. As the PGA Tour began in 1968, Crosby got other stars to host similar events, from Bob Hope in San Diego to Glen Campbell in Los Angeles to Sammy Davis Jr. in Hartford. Many of those events existed before the celebrity deals, but those celebrities then brought their own relationships with corporate sponsors. Those companies then got further into business with the PGA Tour, like Chrysler signing on to underwrite Hope’s Desert Classic.
And the fact that the Clambake was at Pebble Beach gave it a higher status. This was the course everybody wanted to go to — it’s at or near the top of many golfer’s bucket lists. So much of golf history is intertwined with Pebble, hosting six U.S. Opens with famous winners like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods.
But slowly over time, the top players stopped playing the pro-am at Pebble. By 2005, only five of the top 20 players on tour attended. Last year, only Jordan Spieth, Matt Fitzpatrick and Viktor Hovland represented. John became accustomed to having to recruit players.
The reasoning is complicated. For starters, rounds took forever. As much fun as it is for Murray to jump into the crowd and start dancing with spectators, those antics that made the event memorable on TV also led to six-hour rounds. Justin Thomas joked this week that he remembers a 2014 nine-hole practice round taking three and a half hours.
Bill Murray and other golfing celebrities may have tickled the crowds at Pebble Beach but the tour pros were less than entertained. (Getty Images)
Another is the weather. Sure, maybe some of that lore is overstated, but Pebble in February became the most synonymous with the famed “Crosby weather” of fog and rain leading to delays, only adding to the already long days. As this sentence is being typed, some heavy winds caused a structural beam in the media tent to fall. Another factor was the early rounds were broken up across three courses, with Pebble Beach and Spyglass usually the core two. Golfers are rarely big fans of multi-course formats, throwing a large wrinkle of unpredictability and uneven conditions between players. Then you throw in players getting longer and longer off the tee, making the relatively short but iconic Pebble Beach somewhat easy for top players. On top of all of that, it ended up in a tough spot in the schedule. Sandwiched between Torrey Pines, the Phoenix Open and Riviera, plus the DP World Tour event in Dubai, it often turned into the odd man out as players usually avoid playing four tournaments in a row.
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So when the PGA Tour made drastic changes for the 2023 season to create eight exclusive signature events with larger purses and more points for the best players, Pebble was not selected, but PGA Tour executive vice president Tyler Dennis said that was a transition year and not necessarily the long-term schedule.
Around that time, Steve John began working with the PGA Tour to see how to make the Pebble Beach Pro-Am one of those valuable tournaments. John said there wasn’t any major feedback from the tour in the way of necessary changes but more of a process in which once they opened the line of communications it seamlessly moved toward the steps of giving it signature status. It also doesn’t hurt that AT&T is the tour’s longest-serving sponsor. Until this year, it sponsored two PGA Tour events before ending its deal with the Byron Nelson for this season. It also didn’t hurt that the Monterey Peninsula Foundation is one of the strongest charitable gives on tour, per Dennis. Then, you throw in Pebble Beach itself.
“You know, when those three parties and the PGA Tour sat down to talk about it, it was just sort of obvious that we needed to make it happen,” Dennis said.
While John and Dennis didn’t say it was directly connected, they changed the format drastically this year right as they were given signature status. Many of the stars were not invited, with just a handful of athletes like Tom Brady, Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, Buster Posey, Alex Smith and Pau Gasol. The tour did not want to lose the beloved pro-am model, but it also needed to make the tournament work logistically. The trade-off ultimately became fewer celebrities for more elite golfers.
“It’s just two days now, but the experience for the ‘ams’ should be incredible,” John said.
In turn, we get to see the best players return to one of golf’s great courses. Suddenly the tournament is an 80-man, no-cut event at just two courses instead of three. It will be new to see Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and company playing at the Monterey Peninsula this time of year.
While the weather again looks quite hairy this week, the play times have been improved. Thomas said he went from that three-and-a-half-hour nine-hole round in 2014 to playing 18 in four and a half hours while chipping and practicing on each hole.
It’s pure carnage at Pebble Beach and the Golf Twitter feeds are clogged with private equity valuations. So here’s a palate cleanser: Tony Finau casually hitting driver on No. 7 (thank you Boyd Summerhays for this gem). pic.twitter.com/snZGXxBqrr — Gabby Herzig (@GabbyHerzig) January 31, 2024
“It has a little less Bing Crosby to it,” said Spieth, who is sponsored by AT&T and remained one of the few to play each year. “It was fun and unique in the way that it was, but it has the feel of closer to a major championship. So I think it will depend on what people that are not me want to do going forward with this event, but this week it feels more like a golfer’s major championship.”
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But there’s something full circle about this moment for the Clambake. It was an event built on growing golf and combining star power with the sport. Thirty years later, the PGA Tour was founded because of increasing revenues and top players wanting more money and more exclusive events. And that is exactly where the PGA Tour finds itself this week. It has moved toward exclusive tournaments with more money to make top players happy and fight off the LIV Golf threat. On Wednesday, the PGA Tour announced a $3 billion deal with Strategic Sports Group, an investment collective featuring several prominent sports owners, to provide players with more financial equity in the tour.
The PGA Tour in 2024 is less about the community it’s inhabiting for the week than ever before. It’s less about gallery attendance than it is about creating the best possible television product with as many top players as possible.
That’s resulted in being more focused than ever on gathering great golfers at the same events. And the shift in the Clambake might be the final step in that evolution. Is this good for golf? Is it good for the PGA Tour?
Hold on and find out.
(Top photos of Pebble Beach’s 7th hole: Warren Little / Getty Images; and Bing Crosby: Getty Images)

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